By David Weiner
If you want to see a sparkle in Mark Hamill’s eyes, ask him about CORVETTE SUMMER.
When I first met the STAR WARS icon in the summer of 2012, I was working for ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT and had a sit-down interview lined up with him at his Hard Rock hotel room across the street from the craziness of Comic-Con in San Diego.
He was promoting his new film, SUSHI GIRL, about a group of criminals who reconvene at a private restaurant (seated around a nude woman covered in sushi) years after a heist gone wrong, determined to suss out the double-crossing rats of the gang.
We talked about his departure role as a man named Crow in the film, which finds him in true character-actor mode with shades of The Joker given the unpredictable cruelty and malevolence he gets to perform. “It reminded me of RESERVOIR DOGS, or one of those really gritty crime pictures,” he said. “At first I just couldn’t conceive of myself doing it. It’s funny because it’s so grim, and I imagined the set being grim, and we couldn’t have had more fun.”
Towards the end of our 25-minute chat about all things SUSHI GIRL, I playfully baited Hamill and said, “With the time we have left, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about a little ’70s movie you might’ve been in, if you don’t mind.”
Expecting the obligatory STAR WARS questions, he politely responded, “Sure, sure.”
Then I said, “So, CORVETTE SUMMER…” Hamill laughed heartily, then cried, ”Thank you!!!”
His eyes sparkled and he shared excitedly, “I did that yesterday at the [STAR WARS] panel. I got this great ovation when I was introduced, and I said, ‘Obviously there are a lot of CORVETTE SUMMER fans in the audience.’ A lot of them just didn’t get it.”
Released in June of 1978, CORVETTE SUMMER was the first movie that featured Hamill as the lead after STAR WARS burst onto the scene a year earlier in the summer of ’77. The marketers even capitalized on that fact by writing on the film’s poster, “Mark Hamill, who you loved in STAR WARS.” George Lucas had previously struck gold at the box office in 1973 with AMERICAN GRAFFITI, and so coming-of-age tales combined with car culture permeated a variety of films that followed in the mid-‘70s. Anti-heroes with CB radios also muscled onto cinema screens with rollicking car-chase tales, cemented by the 1977 box-office hit SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT with Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, and Jackie Gleason.
But as post-STAR WARS audiences started leaning towards more Sci-Fi and fantasy on the big screen, they wanted to swap out their Trans Ams and Hot Rods for Landspeeders and X-Wings. CORVETTE SUMMER came out about a year too late to be a big hit, and though it fared moderately well at the box office (earning about $36 million on a $9 million budget), critical response was a bit more divided between reviews of “zany” with “outstanding performances” and “coughing, sputtering and misfiring incessantly.” Decades later, CORVETTE SUMMER more or less has been eclipsed by movie history — at least where the average Luke Skywalker fan is concerned.
A twentysomething Hamill plays Kenny Dantley in the road-trip picture, a California high school senior who builds a customized Corvette Stingray, only to have it stolen. He gives chase to reclaim his dream car, and his adventure pairs him with “prostitute-in-training” Vanessa (the wonderful Annie Potts) on the way to Sin City.
“You know, when we made it, it was called DANTLEY AND VANESSA,” revealed Hamill. “There was a subtitle: A Fiberglass Romance. It didn’t get renamed CORVETTE SUMMER until after we had finished it, and we were all appalled. I said, ‘It sounds cheesy, you know? It doesn’t sound like the movie we made.’” Other potential titles considered for the film were STINGRAY and, arguably worse, THE HOT ONE.
The film was the directorial debut of Matthew Robbins, who had written Steven Spielberg’s THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS as well as MACARTHUR and THE BINGO LONG TRAVELING ALL-STARS & MOTOR KINGS. An assured helmer behind the camera, Robbins went on to direct the likes of DRAGONSLAYER, THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN, and BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED, and regularly writes Guillermo del Toro’s projects. Robbins wrote the screenplay for CORVETTE SUMMER as well.
“At least I remember it being a really charming script that said something about young people,” recalled Hamill. “His whole life was that car, and by the time he got it back, his life had so changed he didn’t want it anymore — he wanted the girl.”
Pondering the theme of the film, he concluded, “I think that’s a really good message, you know? Aside from being a fun road picture, it really had something to say.”
Of course, I couldn’t end our interview outside Comic-Con without asking at least one STAR WARS question, and Hamill was happy to oblige: I asked, “What was your most indelible memory of the whole experience, whether it was a personal moment on the set, or the first time you’d seen your Luke Skywalker action figure?”
“I would say moments of reflection in North Africa with Sir Alec Guinness,” replied Hamill. “Between shots it was surreal, in a way, because the terrain was so alien, you know? And sitting with Sir Alec Guinness over there — pinch me — as a robot with his head off was smoking… I mean, it was just odd.”
He continued, ”STAR WARS was disparate parts of cowboy movies, pirate movies, World War II movies, and swashbuckling and all that — everything old is new again, and George put so many elements into it that were recognizable to film fans.”
Reflecting on that famous Cantina scene, Hamill smiled, “You know, certainly for someone who grew up on Famous Monsters magazine and Ray Harryhausen, I just couldn’t believe how much fun we were having doing it.”
I’ve spoken with Mark Hamill several times since our first meeting, on behalf of both ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT and Famous Monsters magazine. Hamill has a clear appreciation for the fandom that he has earned from his central role in the phenomenon that is STAR WARS. Deep inside, he’s just an excitable fan himself of all sorts of media — from film and music to television, Broadway, comics, and pop culture.
Just remember, if you cross paths with him, don’t tell him you love STAR WARS. Tell him how much you loved CORVETTE SUMMER.
Writing and maintaining IT CAME FROM… is a true labor of love.
Please consider showing your appreciation and helping to keep the site ad free and free for all (no paywalls) by donating a couple bucks with BUY ME A COFFEE. It’s quick and easy!